Early & Silent Film

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The Guns of Loos. Britain 1928

Posted by keith1942 on June 12, 2017

The film used an actual wartime crisis as the basis for a fictional drama. In 1915 there was a military and political crisis in Britain when there was a shortage of shells on the Western Front. This led to the elevation of Lloyd George to Minister of Munitions, a stepping stone for his later success. It also led to new government regulations limiting the legal rights of munitions workers. The latter workforce, in a seismic change, relied increasingly on women workers.

The film is divided between the home front, the Grimshaw munitions factory and the Cheswick mansion, and the western front with trench warfare and heavy reliance on large scale artillery bombardments. The film opens in a rain-soaked dug-out where the British soldiers are

‘down to out last five shells’.

We then move to the home front, the Grimshaw factory and the mansion of the aristocratic Cheswicks. The home front drama is rather in the mould of an ‘upstairs/downstairs’ story. At the factory the contrast and conflict is between the workers, many of them women, and the bourgeois owner John Grimshaw (Henry Victor). At the mansion we frequently cut from upstairs with Lady Cheswick (Adeline Hayden Coffin) and her daughter Diana (Madeline Carroll in her film debut) to downstairs with the servants and their working class friends..

We are first introduced to John Grimshaw with a title that informs us that he is

‘an iron master, a slave driver’.

At the factory there are cohorts of women workers operating munitions machines which have replaced the iron working machinery: whilst the male workers tend to be engineers, mechanics and [of course] foremen.

John Grimshaw is a frequent visitor to the Cheswick mansion as he is courting Diana. His friend, but also rival is Clive (Donald McCardle ). The romantic rivalry provides part of the dramatic interest on the home front. Downstairs the romance is between Danny (Bobby Howes) a factory worker and Mavis (Hermione Baddeley, a real pleasure in only her second screen appearance.).Thus, when John and Clive are called up to the front there is a Christmas celebration upstairs. A formal; affair where both John and Clive propose to Diana, who remains undecided between them.  A  parallel party  below stairs has a more cheerful and exuberant celebration with Mavis saying her farewells to Danny.The two class factions are bought together at the end of the sequence as all circle together and sing Auld Lang Syne.

The most dramatic parts of the film, and the technically most accomplished, are on the Western Front. John and Clive serve together commanding an artillery battery. Here the film presents the problem of ‘shell shock’. In a particularly fierce German bombardment John’s nerves crack and it takes a slap by Clive to get him to pull himself together. However, after this John redeems himself when he takes over the hazardous Observation Post right on the front line.

We also spend time with the privates, ex-workers and ex-servants. There is an effective sequence where the troops attend a concert party, with the soldiers providing amateur acts. One item involves a cross-dressing private, who reassures his friends that

‘but I’m straight!’

The most dramatic sequence follows, interrupting the concert party and a sly romance between a private and a mademoiselle. A German bombardment followed by an advance leads to the guns going forward and then retreating. This is an extensive and dynamic sequence with long tracks as the gun carriages gallop forward and back, and with fast cutting between both high-angle and low-angle shots, increasing the drama.

“The scene was filmed at Gibb’s chalk pits in West Thurrock in Essex, which was a good stand-in for the chalky field of Artois’. (Festival Catalogue).

The sequence blends models shots with actual action skilfully and there is plenty of tension and excitement. Three cinematographers are listed in the credits: D.P. Cooper, Desmond Dickinson and Sidney Eaton. Cooper was the most experienced whilst Dickinson was just at the start of his career as was Eaton. The editing was by Leslie Brittain. And the film was designed by Walter Murton, whose most noted work was on the excellent Shooting Stars (1928). They worked from a scenario by Reginald Fogwell and Leslie H. Gordon, both regular writers in the industry in the 1920s. The plot is fairly conventional, but the stand out parts probably owe much to actual wartime experience of the director and the skills of the production team.

John is wounded and he and Clive return home. All is not well on the home front. A strike has erupted at the factory, contributing to the shell crisis. There is a shadowy figure who seems to be an agitator; a regular smear in treatments of industrial action. The film plays this into the historical events with shots of newspapers and Lloyd George’s actions at the time.

John has in fact been blinded . However, this only becomes apparent when he actively intervenes to end the strike. Here we get a plea for national unity. And the response is dramatised by having not just the factory workers but the local townspeople participating. It is the women worker who lead the way back into the factory,

‘us girls is going back’

thus ending the crisis.

John Grimshaw has had a partial transformation, but despite the space given to the workers in the film it does not address the issues that led to actual strikes in 1915. The redeemed John can at last win Diana who takes John’s hand and announces that she

‘will be his eyes now’.

In what might be a debt to Charlotte Brontë there is a reverse shot as John sees a faint outline of Diana.

The Catalogue notes that the director Sinclair Hill recalled that

“My wartime experiences were the original inspiration for Guns of Loos, perhaps my most successful film to date … No less a person than Mr. Lloyd George expressed a desire to see this picture, so we took a copy down and with the aid of portable projection apparatus showed it in the statesman’s drawing room with the great man himself …”

It seem that, just as Winston Churchill never used public transport, Lloyd George never visited the popular cinema.

The musical accompaniment was composed by Stephen Horse thanks to a commission by The Great War Dundee Project,

“I was very mindful of the importance that the event had for this particular area of Scotland, as while the fiction love story around which the film revolves seems to take place south of the border, I tried to maximise the Scottish element in the central battle scene. At one point the legendary bagpiper Daniel Laidlaw appears as himself, recreating his historic role, so I sourced a recording of Laidlaw playing the same tune that he used to pipe the soldiers “over the top”. This recording is incorporated into the music.”

The score had Stephen at the piano and occasionally playing the accordion; ex RAF trumpeter Geoffrey Lawrence and Frank Bockius on drums. The 35 print was from the National Film Archive. Struck in 1976 the print was worn but made for reasonable viewing.

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